Salazar seeks to restore trust relationship at DOI
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar identified Indian Country as one of his top priorities on Wednesday as he seeks to reform a department plagued by ethical scandals and corruption.

In his first media roundtable since joining the new administration of President Barack Obama, Salazar vowed to "restore" the federal government's relationship with tribes. He referred to the Interior Department as a "trustee" in his remarks to reports in Washington, D.C.

"It has to be a relationship where we can collaborate in dealing with the many issues that deal with Indian Country," the former senator from Colorado said. "There are tough challenges that our Native American communities face across the country."

Salazar cited education, health care and law enforcement as key concerns for American Indians and Alaska Natives. All three areas were part of Obama's platform, which won praise from hundreds of tribal leaders during the campaign last year.

During the roundtable, Salazar didn't offer too many details on his plans to address these issues. But he said he will use experience as a former attorney general for Colorado to combat "lawlessness" on reservations.

"I intend to use my law enforcement background to work with the kinds of partnerships that will hopefully bring back a sense of law with regard to much of Indian Country," said Salazar.

Salazar was more specific on another big issue at Interior. He is heading back home to Colorado today to visit a Minerals Management Service office where an internal investigation uncovered rampant drug use, illicit sexual activities and close relationships with representatives of the energy industry.

No one was ever charged in connection with the scandal, which made headlines before the November 2008 election. But in a White House appearance following his media roundtable, Salazar pledged to take a harder look at the office, which handles billions of dollars in royalties on federal and Indian lands.

"During the last administration, some of the employees of that office violated the public trust by accepting gifts and employment contracts from the oil and gas companies they are supposed to be holding accountable. Some employees engaged in blatant and criminal conflicts of interest and self dealing," Salazar said. "It is one of the worst examples of corruption, abuse, and of government putting special interests before the public interest."

Salazar also pointed out that Interior was tainted the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. J. Steven Griles, who was the second-in-command at the department, was sent to prison for providing favors to Abramoff's tribal clients.

"Over the last eight years, the Department of the Interior has been tarnished by ethical lapses and criminal behavior that has extended to the highest levels of government," Salazar said. "The former deputy secretary of the department under the Bush administration, Steven Griles, was sent to prison. It is the department that the American people associate with Jack Abramoff."

Obama has nominated David J. Hayes to serve as Salazar's deputy secretary. Unlike Griles, who was an energy lobbyist, Hayes has a legal background and has worked on Indian water rights settlements.

"He will bring a steady hand to the management of the department and a career's worth of expertise – from his service in the Clinton administration to his work in natural resource law and on climate change policy," Salazar said of Hayes, whose nomination requires confirmation by the Senate.

Obama has yet to announce his picks for the Bureau of Indian Affairs but tribal leaders and key members of Congress say it will be Larry EchoHawk, a lawyer from the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma. The executive branch typically waits to fill higher-level posts like the deputy secretary before moving to assistant secretary posts like the one for the BIA.

Also up in the air are nominees for the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians and the National Indian Gaming Commission. The Special Trustee and the NIGC chairman posts require Senate confirmation.

Relevant Documents:
Cleaning house: Department of the Interior (January 29, 2009) | Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar’s Remarks at Today’s White House Press Briefing (January 28, 2009) | Secretary's Memorandum to Employees on Ethical Responsibilities (January 26, 2009) | Salazar Lauds President's Nomination of David J. Hayes as Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Interior (January 26, 2009)

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